Budapest rises from the hillsides on either side of the Danube in a tangle of spires, every bit as much the old warrior's helmet as the pinnacle of a cathedral. It is breathtaking. From our vantage point in the sturdy old Soviet hydrofoil, it indeed seemed to earn its self-proclaimed moniker, the "Pearl of the Danube, usurping the crown from even Vienna, which wins economically but loses when measured in charm. And it's hard not to like a capital city you can enter via a watercourse, rather than through an airport chafing under its own security measures.
Budapest is a story, its varied buildings and monuments testament to millennia of shifting political winds, rising imperial forces, conquest and acquiescence, destruction and resurrection, even reincarnation. We wandered among Turkish baths, stuccoed buildings that dated from the Hapsburgs, and newer, Communist structures built for modesty and conscious frugality. Knowing far too little of Budapest's history, as I walked the streets, much of it was a mystery to me. Perhaps that is part of the allure.
The layers and textures of Hungary's history are best appreciated aurally. Imola, our friend and guide, did her best. About the royal palace on a bluff overlooking the Danube's west bank, "there was an earlier palace on this site, but it was burned by the Mongols when they invaded. The earliest Hungarians migrated east until they settled here on the banks of the Danube, but in hindsight, most modern Hungarians wish they'd gone a little further west and let someone else suffer the invasions from the east." About the conversion of St. Mathieu to Roman Catholicism, not Greek Orthodox Catholicism, "He knew it would bind us to the West at a time the East was viewed with suspicion." And about the Soviet-inspired buildings whose proletarian façades shrank behind the glorious baroque structures that flanked them, "our Communists were more interested in showing they could save money than making a statement of any eloquence."
As impenetrable as Hungary's convoluted history was its language, which presented for me the first travel experience in which I could not be sure what a store was selling without peering inside the store front. This imposed illiteracy - my first experience - was humbling, to be sure, but it left Budapest awash in an allure born of exoticism rather than intimacy, and like the charming but aloof girl, inundated me with a passion to keep trying. The Hungarian alphabet is a chopping board of diacriticals: dots and hashes, and syllables that aggregate like wagons on a street car. I found it to be lovely, a paradox of harsh looking letters that somehow slue off the tongue like the ripples in the Danube.
We were there as much to enjoy a foreign city as to look up my ancestors, who left their village to join the New World in the 19th century, passing without doubt through Budapest before raising the gangplank on the steamer that would bear them westward. But I enjoyed Budapest enough to wonder why they left. We spent a couple of mornings in the city's parks, where my daughter made friends of Hungarian children in the sandboxes; without fail within minutes they were all sharing shovels and plastic pails. And we walked past the magnificent parliamentary building, the nearly unpronouncable Országaház ("They've got over 200 solid gold cigar holders for the representatives!" whispered a Dutchman we met at the hotel") in wonder of how something so magnificent could be erected by humans, wandered by the myriad churches, and traversed the city to the tune of the streetcar's bell (which Valentina loved).
I'd grown up thinking of Budapest as somewhat of a "Gateway to the East" but realized neighboring Ukraine doesn't really fit my stereotype of the East. It's a transition, nonetheless: a mix of the modern and the historical, the east and the west, the rustic and the urban. Pearl of the Danube, indeed: I will return here some day.
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